Six promising $0 inbound marketing strategies for startups

If you’re a rookie entering a competitive market, you want to make every dollar count. You can’t be a category disruptor by simply buying your way into the market with ads. Your competition is going to drive prices up, and it is going to become an expensive, recurring cost for you. 

So, what do you do? 

Let’s take an example. You’ve heard about Oatley, the Swedish oat-milk brand, haven’t you? It’s a classic example of a small brand that disrupted its way to popularity among the Swedish dairy mafia. 

Here’s what they did. When the dairy lobby filed a lawsuit against Oatley’s slogan—It’s like milk, but made for humans—quoting that it posed a threat to regular milk, the Oatley team, instead of stepping down, audaciously published the lawsuit online and in print publications calling out the lobby as bullies. Oatley eventually lost the lawsuit. But its presence skyrocketed from being just another vegan brand to a celebrity underdog.  

Let’s take another example. Freshsales CRM (now Freshworks CRM) faced a similar challenge when it entered the CRM space: many big league players, super-crowded market, and high entry barriers. Simply generating leads wasn’t going to cut it. The team had to build a brand. It had to attract prospects by taking the thought-leadership route, because sales at the early stage was top heavy, where founders were making decisions.

What did we do? 

We decided to build credibility to get into the consideration set. Given our lean budgets, we partnered with thought leaders in the sales and CRM space and rolled out many $0 inbound and outbound marketing strategies like creating listicles, putting together an online sales summit and more (We are now giving free credits to startups as well!).  

The result? We grew from zero to 3,000 customers in two years. 

With that in mind, in this article, let’s get into some very workable inbound strategies you can explore to become a category disruptor in your market. 

1. Leverage external thought leaders to create valuable content 

Whether you do it as a content series, webinars or podcasts, your primary goal should be to create ample visibility with minimal effort.

For example, in our “Secret Sauce to Sales” series, we reached out to sales leaders in big-league companies like Zoom, Evernote, Quora, and Lucidchart, and published sales and marketing related blogs based on insights from them. 

A second strategy we adopted was to produce thought-leadership webinars with prominent sales leaders in the industry.

What transpired was: 

  1. Aside from us marketing the content, the thought leaders themselves started spreading the word among their audience, and we gained visibility into their audience pool without much spending. 
  2. Many who were following these big brands began looking at our content and taking notes from the lessons shared in them. It resonated with them because these were challenges they were facing every day at their workplace. 
  3. It built credibility for us. Those who viewed the content on our site started perceiving our products as dependable. 

Pro Tip: If you’re a startup, many times the top executives may not work with you. The workaround is to get functional leaders to begin with and work your way up. 

That being said, you also need to ensure that your messaging to these leaders is right—personalized, relevant, and mutually beneficial when it applies. 

2. Create content that accelerates decision-making for prospects

SEO-driven industry pages can be a great way to improve search results and ease lead generation. For example, you can create industry pages around how your product or service will suit different industries.

Better search results means higher visibility and more leads. Moreover, instead of going through an elaborate process of reaching out to our sales team at the very first step, our top of the funnel prospects immediately got a fair idea into how our brand can help them solve their needs. 

A second, and a widely used form of content you can create is case studies. If you have a happy customer, even if they are a small company, get them to talk about it. 

Keep one hack in mind though: Your headline can make or break the deal. 

For example, we published a case study on Shortlist, a small SaaS startup based in California. Because we had a large pool of startup founders (prospects) in California, our headline was: ‘How California-based Shortlist cut costs by 50% and sustained growth with Freshsales’. Bringing ‘California’ to the fore would not only grab their attention but also throw up in search results effectively, thus creating more visibility.  

When we got the customers to share case studies in their networks, we got higher visibility. Also, nothing gets more business like word of mouth from a customer. 

3. Create good listicles 

Listicles are like coffee-takeaways at Starbucks. They are fast, convenient, and effective.

While listicles come with a fair share of protests for being shallow and redundant, the key to making it worthwhile is to keep your content useful, relatable, and filled with valuable takeaways. 

For example, we did some research and identified the most active sales influencers and tracked what kind of posts they were sharing and connecting with. Using that  data, we put together a listicle called ‘25+ sales influencers to follow on LinkedIn’.

Pro Tip: If you are including brands and individuals relevant to your industry in the listicle, request them to share the content with their audience. It will help generate higher visibility, and build credibility for your brand, given the reputation of those who are sharing it. 

Examples of listicles you could create:

  1. 20 timeless books every marketer must read 
  2. 10+ email marketing influencers to follow in 2021
  3. 10 CX leaders share how COVID-19 has changed support dynamics 

4. Create effective guides for your audience at the n-1 step

Create content that helps your prospects take the next step in setting up their business, and acts as one step before they need your product.

For example, in the CRM market, we realized that many of our prospects are those who are just setting up their lead generation channels. We tapped into this audience by creating a detailed guide on ‘How to generate leads on Product Hunt’. 

Once it reached the right audience, it automatically turned their attention toward the brand that created this content. 

Examples of guides:

  1. How to choose the best CRM for your business 
  2. How to lead a remote sales team during a pandemic 
  3. How to reduce email response times to customers 

When we consume a good piece of content anywhere on the internet, and we gain value from it, we tend to dig deeper into the brand that created this content, which translates to a potential lead. 

5. Create and repurpose searchable content in different formats 

Not everybody is going to spend an hour listening to your webinars or even consuming the long-form content you create. This is where breaking down the content you’ve created into different formats can be effective.

For example, you can take a good webinar and turn it into short posts for quick consumption on social media, or as short videos for LinkedIn, as snippets on Google, or even create anchor tags in your blog. Moreover, Google search for text content can be difficult to rank but might work for other types of content effectively.

Repurposing content into different formats helped us reach our content and brand across to a larger audience in the medium they liked to consume it in.

6. Lean on product review platforms and their recognitions

Product review platforms like G2 Crowd or even Google Reviews play a very crucial role in helping your prospects determine how good or bad your product is. Hence, it becomes critical that you keep a close watch over what your customers are talking about your brand on these platforms. Even better, get existing customers to share their positive reviews.

Sometimes, platforms like G2 Crowd hand out badges every summer and winter for products based on their performance and reviews. If you have earned one, let your customers and prospects know that you have been recognized by creating content around it.

Being present in review platforms is not just about having your customers write positive feedback about your product. It’s also about making sure negative feedback/complaints are acted upon immediately too.

Cover image: Vignesh Rajan

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